Guilt and Grief: Making A Living Amends

It would be easy to think there is nothing more WYG can write about guilt and grief. We’ve written about how common guilt is in grief (you wouldn’t believe how many people get the “coulda woulda shouldas”). We wrote an article about the difference between guilt and regret. We talked about the complicated processes of self-forgiveness and self-compassion.  We’ve filled you in on things that can exacerbate guilt, like hindsight bias and survivors’ guilt. We’ve given you journaling exercises around coping with regret. With all those articles (that you should go back and check out if you haven’t read them), it would be easy to assume we have said all there is to say. But if you are dealing with guilt and grief, you probably aren’t surprised that there is more to say. Somehow in all this guilt writing, we have never talked about making amends with someone who died.

Guilt is one of those stuck points in grief. Our brain can get caught in a loop. We go back to a moment in time and we fixate on the things we wish we had done differently. It makes it hard to remember things that happened before or after. We blame ourselves for certain things that happened – sometimes rightfully, and sometimes not. We believe that the only path to forgiveness is asking it of the person we love, the person we believe we hurt, and making amends for what we did wrong. That might not be so tricky if the person were still alive. If you’re reading this, chances are they’re not. You’re left with a mountain of guilt and no one to apologize to, no one from whom you can ask forgiveness or make amends. 

So, the big question: what do you do?!

I know I said it once, but I’ll say it again – if you are dealing with guilt and you haven’t read the articles above, now is the time. Seriously. We’ll wait. 

Phew, it’s a lot. We know. Guilt is a doozy to unpack. Someone telling you not to feel guilty rarely cures guilt. Self-forgiveness can be a long and complicated process. Teasing out the difference between guilt and regret can be tough. But if you have spent some time with your guilt and still feel confident that what you did hurt another person, someone who is no longer here to give forgiveness, there is another way of coping with guilt that we have never mentioned – making a ‘living amends’. 

Wait, what does it mean to make amends?

Amends (n) ə-ˈmen(d)z compensate or make up for a wrongdoing.
. Like the definition says, amends is something we do to make up for something we feel guilty for. It is different from an apology, which is “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure”. An apology doesn’t include an action that attempts to make up or compensate for that wrongdoing. And then, of course, there is a request forgiveness.  That is also a different ball of wax entirely, one that we have written about here.  The definition of forgiveness: “A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior to one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her” (Enright et al in Enright and North 1998) is one that can be helpful to keep in mind as we think about amends.

Notice the words “right to resentment” and “underserved qualities” in there? Forgiveness is NOT about denying wrongdoing. It is about what we do despite that wrongdoing, “abandoning [our] right to resentment . . . “. This becomes important when we consider amends. Making amends does not undoing the wrongdoing, just as forgiveness doesn’t undo the wrongdoing. Instead, it is an action we take to compensate for what we have done. 

But how do you make amends with someone who is dead?

Good question. When someone is alive and you’ve hurt them, amends are more straightforward. You might go to that person and take responsibility for what you have done wrong, express you deep remorse, and ask what you can do to make it up to them. You may couple that making of amends with a request for forgiveness. I am not saying things like that are easy, they’re not. But at least the person is here. We can go to them directly and work through it (or at least try). 

When someone has died, things get tricky. Suddenly your spinning around things you feel guilty for. Maybe it is a fight you always thought you had time to resolve. Perhaps it is something you said or did while they were ill. It could be time you wish you had spent with them. Now, whether it is an apology, a want for forgiveness, or an amends, that person isn’t here and it makes it hard to imagine any of those things are possible. 

What is Living Amends?

Enter living amends, stage left. If you’re familiar with substance use recovery and 12-step programs, the idea of “living amends” might ring a bell. When you cannot directly make up for something to the person you hurt, a living amends is a decision to change your ongoing behavior in a way that is informed by the wrongdoing. Your ‘living amends’ is living in a way that that acknowledges the previous mistake by consistently living in a way that doesn’t repeat it or compensates for it. 

David Kessler discusses a living amends in his latest book, Finding Meaning. In his book he shares the situation of a woman who has a fight with her brother. Though he calls her following the argument, she doesn’t answer. Before speaking with him again, he dies. She is left feeling deep guilt. Though we would certainly suggest she read some of our other posts on seems like regret and self-forgiveness, we also deeply appreciate the option of a ‘living amends’. As Kessler describes, this woman may decide that her way of making amends is to always answer the phone when someone she loves calls after a fight. Though this cannot undo or directly compensate for the initial mistake, it can serve as living amends that comes through a different way of being in the world. Though you can’t directly apologize to the person and compensate for what you did to them, you can consider exactly what you would apologize for and what you would do differently, and still do it differently. In that act, your actions in their memory make you and the world a better place. 

As always, subscribe below to get all our new posts to your inbox. And comment if you have an example of a living amends.

February 24, 2020

6 responses on "Guilt and Grief: Making A Living Amends"

  1. Ok, so here’s a taboo subject: my grand daughter died a year ago and since then I have been unable to love my two remaining grand daughters. (or anyone for that matter) I am trying to be as “normal” as possible and I don’t think they are aware of how I feel. I know in theory that I do love them, but since this terrible bereavement I feel in shock and maybe also too afraid to love again. I feel very bad about this and am hoping it will change over time, but in the meantime I find it very hard to be with them. I feel utterly broken.

  2. Recently a member of a FB group brought up a point I’d considered several times and you allude to it in this article. It would be helpful if grieving parents had a support system like AA. To be able to find a meeting when we’re losing it would be extremely helpful. Having the FB groups with members worldwide, one can usually find someone awake no matter the time of day or night. Still to have full human contact would be more effective. I too have wondered how we could make amends? I dealt with guilt issues myself not only after my daughter died but a year later when my mother died. Mainly it was that I didn’t protect them enough, I didn’t keep them alive. Yes, I know. Those are god complex issues. I resolved those issues finally knowing that I did my best. There’s nothing more I can do, and taking on other people to protect would not be the absolution for which I was searching. Sometimes all we can is accept that it is what it is and keep going.

  3. Thank you WYG for all the help and support you’ve provided me the past 2+ years! It’s just so great to know that all my quirks and crazy thoughts aren’t really all that crazy. Or, at least, they’re commonly crazy 😉
    I don’t know if anyone else will find some comfort with this, but here goes – I am a believer in Jesus Christ. A few of the Christian people I know ‘talk’ to their dead loved ones. That doesn’t make any sense to me because I can’t imagine a heaven where I still have to listen to everyone’s problems. Sorry – Just being honest.
    Anyway, what DOES help me with regrets/guilt is that I talk to God. And I specifically tell God what I feel bad about and then, I ask God, “if it won’t make heaven any less unimaginably wonderful, let my mother/dad/husband know that I’m really sorry about . . . “.
    I believe that God hears me. And I trust that He knows what my loved ones need to know or no longer have any need of knowing. But in either case, I’ve expressed my regret/guilt. I’ve asked for forgiveness from God and my loved ones (if God thinks they need to know about it). I can’t tell you how much relief I felt the first time I did this with tears streaming down my face. My grandparents, dad, mom, and husband are all enjoying heaven. I would never want any one of them to be ‘bothered’ by my guilt/regret here and now. I leave that up to God.
    I understand that many people feel/believe differently than I do. I’m just sharing what’s helped me with this issue. If I continue to feel badly about a particular issue, I bring it to God again. And, I remember that I’ve already taken care of it.
    This may not make a lot of sense psychologically speaking, but it’s helped me live my life the past 2+ years without wallowing in regret/guilt and I think that ‘s something to be thankful for. And I am thankful. God is good. In my experience, this is a true statement.

  4. I had guilt with my mother when she died, but it was nothing like I have with the guilt I have with my husband. He died ten months ago from cancer, 26 days after diagnosis. I was working so my daughter helped me take care of her dad, she would stay home with him for three days and then cover for me at work for two days so I could be with him on those days and the weekends. He was going fast and he was trying so hard to stay. I had to work, I had to pay the bills, but I think all the time maybe I should have been home more with him, maybe he didn’t realize how much I loved him and I love him so much. I was married to him for 38 years, he was my life, my soulmate, my best friend. I guess I was in shock, because I cannot tell you what we talked about his last three weeks of life, and we talked all the time, I am full of what if’s and i wishes. I know I could not save him, but I just hope that he knew how much I loved him, and still do. I would do it differently if I had it to do all over again, I miss him so much.

  5. Guilt and Grief, could be a defined disease! It certainly causes physical and mental issues, in varying degrees! Most certainly, a chronic affliction! Before I knew the definition of grief, I was already suffering from it, and along with it came guilt! This was early in life, which actually became a pattern, of sorts, of how I would live my life. I would lose something of importance to me, and automatically attach guilt to it. Deserved or not! Back then, I was too young to be feeling guilt for things I didn’t fully understand, but, now decades later, I’m starting to connect the dots to this behavior. Hard to simplify this, when you have lived most of your life in this pattern, but, after a failed marriage, I began to act out in a manner, I’m not proud of, but, it was as though I had become a different person! Grief from a failed marriage, turned into a lot of guilt, that I couldn’t undo, for I had grown children, to whom this behavior could affect them, and saying I felt awful did not help, no matter how often I said it, but, I met someone who helped me care about myself, and change the way I was living my life, for the better! Since that time of change, I have lost both a son and daughter, and that someone (became my husband) that helped me change my life. Just that amend to living, helped immensely, with the guilt I felt constantly before hand. Sadly, when a person has dealt with this, grief and guilty behavior, for a lifetime, it doesn’t just quit and go away. I often felt my guilt was now the cause of my grief! I try to remember, I did take a positive step, and stayed with it. My children saw a much happier me. Not knowing I would lose , not one, but, two of my precious children, makes that living amends, that much more important. Now, I’m working on the self-forgiveness part of guilt and grief, which is another story. A much harder nut to crack, when you expect yourself to be perfect and not make so many mistakes or bad choices! This may take awhile!

  6. Thank You again WYG for the long ditance help and support you give me through your various articles’ Specially this one about guilt and regret and remorse’
    A widow of a year’ in my early 60s’ my mind is on constant automatic rewind’ thus I relive all the wrongs and the mistakes I did throughout our marriage of 44 years , berating myself of not expressing my gratitude and love by words enough’ and visualizing all the alternate behaviours or reactions I could have had through our misundersdtandings’ misinterpretations’ the in-law meddlings’ the financial problems and so on …
    Now I just go from one day to the next’ purposeless’ aimless’ unenthusiastic and worthless and meamingless’ I imagine myself already buried with him’ …

    Laura’

Leave a Message

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Disclaimer

WYG provides general educational information from mental health professionals, but you should not substitute information on the What’s Your Grief website for professional advice.

See our terms and conditions here

See our privacy policy here

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1-800-273-8255

PhotoGrief

Share Your Snapshot

Grief In 6 Words

Submit a Story to Us

What's Your Grief Podcast

Listen to our podcast